What’s in all that space between the stars? Space gloop!
The vast emptiness of space isn't really so empty: It's filled with space goop made of greasy carbon molecules.
To say that space is “full of” anything must inevitably be an overstatement. The distances between objects in space are so vast that it’s mostly emptiness, at least as far as we can detect—dark matter, we’re looking at you. Nonetheless, it’s not the barren nowhereland punctuated occasionally by the odd meteorite we see in sci-fi, either. There’s lots of hydrogen out there, and there’s lots of carbon, too. And those two things come together to form greasy molecules, or “aliphatic hydrocarbon.” A new study has calculated for the first time just how much of this “space grease” there is. In our own Milky Way alone, the study concludes, there’s some 10 billion trillion trillion—that’s a 1 followed by 34 zeroes—metric tons of the sticky goo. When you finally get your own personal spaceship, you’ll need windshield wipers.
Illustration of a greasy carbon molecule. Gray spheres are carbon, white ones are hydrogen. (D. Young)
Stars and planets are the products of a continuous cycle of coming together and breaking apart of materials, propelled outward by immense energy releases from stars. The so-called interstellar medium (ISM) is a slurry of unattached materials floating around and potentially available for new star or planet formation.
Interstellar medium (Shutterstock)
It’s believed that carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the ISM. Small molecules containing carbon form in stars’ cores after which they clump together to form larger carbon molecules or grains—up to 70% of space carbon is thought to be found in such grains. Released to the circumstellar regions around the stars, the carbon molecules and grains are eventually borne outward on stellar winds.
Scientists have suspected about half of the carbon out there in the ISM is pure carbon, and the rest is greasy aliphatic carbon and mothball-like aromatic carbon. (Mothballs are made of naphthalene, and aromatic carbon is a gaseous version.) But it’s not clear how much non-pure carbon there is. The mission of the new study was to figure this out.
Scanning electron microscopy of lab-created grease molecule (B. Gu ̈nay, et al)
“The interstellar dust analogues produced in the laboratory enable us to better understand the nature of the dust particles in the ISM,” says the study. “In this study, we produced reliable dust analogues from gas phase precursor molecules by mimicking interstellar/circumstellar conditions.” The team calculated a 3.4μm absorption coefficient using both FTIR and 13C NMR spectroscopy. By applying the coefficient to the known carbon at the center of the Milky Way, they deduced that “The resultant aliphatic carbon column densities are least five times higher than some values reported previously.” That works out to about 54−135 parts per million of the carbon at galaxy center. As the study puts it, “This leaves a substantial proportion of the dust-bound carbon to be found in aromatic or olefinic structures.”
Though the University of South Wales’ UNSW Newsroom cheekily notes that’s about the equivalent of a trillion trillion trillion pats of butter, it’s not something you’d want to eat. “This space grease is not the kind of thing you’d want to spread on a slice of toast,” co-author Tim Schmidt tells UNSW. “It’s dirty, likely toxic and only forms in the environment of interstellar space—and our laboratory.”
Next up, the scientists will attempt to work out how much of what’s left is aromatic molecules.
We are stardust/We are golden/We are million-year-old carbon — Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.
- China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
- CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
- This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.
Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!
And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"
All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.
- Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
- Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
- The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Calling all big thinkers!
The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.
- The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
- This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
- If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.
- Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
- Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
- Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Anatomy and physiology professor David Harper claims a recent study in The Lancet is flawed.
- The low-carbohydrate group in a recent Lancet study were typically middle-aged, obese, sedentary, diabetic smokers.
- The study was not a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment.
- Harper has been in ketosis for six years, and says it has profound effects on cancer patients, among other chronic ailments.
A mind-bending paradox questions the nature of reality.
- Boltzmann Brains are hypothetical disembodied entities with self-awareness.
- It may be more likely for a Boltzmann Brain to come into existence than the whole Universe.
- The idea highlights a paradox in thermodynamics.
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